DAM 101

6 Tips for Implementing Controlled Vocabulary in your Keywords

Andrea Barrera

By Andrea Barrera | Nov 15, 2021

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As your digital asset count has increased, are you finding it harder to find specific images? Even though your organization has invested in a Digital Asset Management (DAM) system are you still having trouble searching through your content? If so, your keywords and other metadata are likely to be the source of your problems. If metadata, such as keywords, is not created correctly it may leave assets unfindable.

Search bars are one of the main ways DAM users find assets. They are what we are all accustomed to. If we need a quick answer, we search Google. If we’re on a website and want to find something specific, we use the search bar. The same is true for a DAM system. Users want to enter search terms, because it’s typically the fastest way to find what they’re looking for. Keywords play a big role in this process since they attach descriptive information to each asset to help make it findable.

You can make certain that the appropriate keywords are consistently applied to every asset by implementing a controlled vocabulary. This is an important step towards making your assets retrievable. This doesn’t mean that all keywords should be controlled terms. DAMs often include other tools to help enhance keywords, like artificial intelligence (AI) tagging. However, controlled vocabularies can ensure keywords are being applied uniformly, while also including terms that are specific to your users.

What is a Controlled Vocabulary?

A controlled vocabulary is a standard set of metadata terms which are field-specific. You can use these terms to manage what information is applied to specific metadata fields. This keeps inconsistent information from being entered into your DAM and allows you to gain more control of your metadata and assets.

As mentioned, controlled vocabularies can be created for different fields. For example, suppose you have a collection of videos which were created for a specific purpose. You can implement a controlled vocabulary for the genre field to ensure the metadata is applied in exactly the way your users will search for it.

Controlled vocabularies can also be used with keywords. Keywords can get tricky when you don’t know what terms other DAM users are applying to assets. For example, one user may tag “Happy” to an asset while another user may tag “Excited” to a similar asset. Although these words are related in context, when someone searches for assets tagged “Happy” they won’t retrieve the assets that were tagged with “Excited,” leaving many assets invisible. Implementing a controlled vocabulary as part of your keywording process streamlines this.

6 Tips for Implementing Controlled Vocabularies in Your Keywords:

  1. Use industry-specific terms. To improve your users’ search experience, make sure you’re using the terms they’ll be searching. Metadata often falls short when custom keywords that apply to your business are missing.
  1. Use the plural version of the word, or the gerund (ending in ”ing”). This allows for multiple versions of the word to be searched. For example, if an asset is tagged “Shirts,” this allows both “Shirt” and “Shirts” to be searchable terms. The same goes for “Swimming,” a user will be able to search for “Swim” and “Swimming.”
  1. Don’t double up on metadata by creating controlled vocabulary keywords that are already found in other metadata fields. For example, if you already have a metadata field that states the genre, don’t add a tag. Metadata in other fields is also searchable. Tagging takes more time and increases the risk of applying incorrect information.
  1. Set a keyword range. Giving your users a numerical range of controlled vocabulary terms to apply (ex: 3-5) will help ensure your assets are findable. There may be times when it’s appropriate to apply more terms. However, a range will set an expectation of how many tags an asset should usually have. This will ensure there are enough tags for the asset to be searchable.
  1. Maintain and update controlled vocabulary terms. As you know, organizations are always changing and developing. Their terminology changes with it. Making sure your controlled vocabulary is current is vital. Your employees will naturally use new terminology in their searches, expecting the DAM to be up to date.
  1. Make a cheat sheet. Your DAM users shouldn’t need to be metadata experts in order to search within your DAM. However, a keyword/controlled vocabulary cheat sheet can aid them in their searches particularly when they first start using the DAM.

Try This Exercise

Don’t know where to start? Try this exercise using a small sample size of about 15 assets to ensure there’s some subject diversity.

  1. Begin by making a list of descriptive words you would use as keywords.
  2. Once you have the list, group together words that are similar or would fall into the same category. For example, maybe you have: “Flowers,” “Bouquet,” “Sunflowers,” “Tulips,” and “Roses.”
  3. Review the list to see if any of those words are redundant. Some would say “Flowers,” “Sunflowers,” “Tulips,” and “Roses” are repetitive.
  4. Consider if any of the words can be consolidated, or if there’s one word that can be used for a whole group of words. It’s important to make these decisions by looking at them from the perspective of your users. Will they search for both “Flowers” and “Tulips”? If your users will look for a specific flower, then you probably don’t need “Flowers” as a controlled vocabulary term. However, if you’re a stock image company, then your users may use both search terms.

At the end of this exercise, you should have a condensed version of your original list. This is the start of your controlled vocabulary. While it isn’t necessary for you to do this exercise with all of your assets, you can use this same process to identify additional controlled terms for other assets.

The best advice for creating a controlled vocabulary is to think of your users. Ultimately, you’re implementing a DAM for them. Therefore, their search behaviors should have a significant influence on the controlled vocabulary. Be aware that it’s easy to get carried away with keywording. Even though you may want to be as descriptive as possible to make assets more findable, be cautious not to apply too much controlled vocabulary. If you do, it may cause users to retrieve too many assets. Be sure to only apply the terms that your users would utilize to search.

What’s Next?

Wherever you are in your DAM journey, it’s not too late to start managing your metadata. While it may seem overwhelming at first, beginning to define your controlled vocabulary can greatly benefit the search experience of your DAM. Whether you start with just a few metadata fields, or by building your DAM, the important thing is that you start! Need help? If so, the Stacks team of DAM experts is happy to assist! Feel free to reach out.

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